CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With the Elk River making national news over the last few weeks, I can't help but recall the line in "Take Me Home, Country Roads" about West Virginians being "strangers to blue water."
John Denver might have been singing about the ocean, but now we're worried about water supplies for 300,000 people.
My parents live right on the Elk River, about two miles upstream of the site of the Jan. 9 spill of a coal-processing chemical. I'm relieved to say that they are doing fine. That said, they're still drinking bottled water. Given all the conflicting reports about the water supply, they'd rather be safe than sick.
On that note, my colleagues and I organized a letter from 24 West Virginia scientists calling on the EPA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention let their scientists speak freely to the public about water safety. The conflicting reports we've been getting from federal and state agencies have been unacceptable.
Even so, West Virginians have responded admirably. But it would be a mistake to shrug off yet another disaster from a coal-related industry.
Don't get me wrong. I'm the brother, son, and grandson of coal miners. I'm proud of my family's heritage, and the coal industry is right when it says West Virginia coal has kept the country's lights on for generations.
Coal supporters, however, like to talk about only one side of the equation, despite the obvious damage coal production and use does to our health and the environment.
Following the spill, the West Virginia Coal Association, for one, pointed fingers at the chemical industry. The governor said that there weren't any coal mines near the site of the spill. Our senators and representatives also tried to distance the coal industry from the spill.
Who are we trying to kid? Ourselves? Make no mistake: The chemicals that spilled into the river are used to wash coal before it is shipped and burned.
The coal debate is defined far too much in extremes. We can't blame the coal industry for every ill the state faces. But we also can't pretend that it doesn't cause real damage.
After all, West Virginians have been dealing with water pollution from coal production for generations. What's new this time is the scope and scale. The federal government sent disaster aid to the nine counties affected by the spill. The state Legislature approved emergency funds to help small businesses that closed for lack of safe water. Government agencies trucked in tons of water so people could drink and bathe safely. The final bill for this disaster will remain unknown for a while, but one thing is clear: Politicians don't expect the coal industry to pay for it. Instead, our tax dollars will fund the relief.